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Themes as old as the hills made shiny and new in dazzling dark comedy

Fiction: The Wild Laughter

Caoilinn Hughes, Oneworld, €15.99

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Author Caoilinn Hughes

Author Caoilinn Hughes

Author Caoilinn Hughes

 

"Dazzling, heady fiction" is how I described Caoilinn Hughes's debut novel Orchid and the Wasp. And the likes of Max Porter and Kevin Barry were dazzled too. Hughes possesses an ear for language that is unparalleled, except maybe by Barry himself, and her second novel is a finely tuned symphony. Her nods to Beckett and Joyce are nothing if not respectful, and just as Barry's characters in Night Boat to Tangier echo Vladimir and Estragon, moored like two leaky old boats in the port of Algeciras, so Hughes's dark comedy reads like a post-boom Beckett, if he'd been let run riot on a heart-scald of a potato farm in Co Roscommon.

The crash of 2008 was the backdrop to Orchid and is again with The Wild Laughter, but the location here is the muck-brown midlands, gored with the entrails of slaughtered lambs and poisoned dogs. Here we find Manus Black, a potato farmer who loses everything after some uncharacteristic property speculation back in the days when people could get "the 10K loan when they'd only asked the bank teller for directions". Manus refuses healthcare when he discovers he has lung cancer, launching himself instead into clawing back whatever he can for his wife Nora and two adult sons, Cormac and Hart.

The narrator is the younger son, Hart, who stayed home on the farm while the elder, Cormac, a right sleveen, went to college. Biblical allusions abound, from Cain and Abel to the Prodigal Son, and the parish priest plays a not insignificant part. As Manus's illness gets worse, he decides on assisted suicide. And to say any more would be to spoil.

Nora, the mother, is an ex-nun and by far the most elusive of the characters, although the source of many a wry one-liner. Enraptured with her older son and indifferent to her younger, Hart's antipathy towards her is depicted in a poignant scene where he won a Noddy book as a six-year-old. Delighted, he approached his mother to read it to him "with a mother's fluency and confidence" while somehow knowing she wouldn't. "And her stuck face revealed that she had no such experience of love or comfort to draw from, and she seemed embarrassed to be the stand-in adult of my fantasy. 'Ask your father,' she told me…"

Back in the present day, the love interest, for both brothers it transpires, is a certain Dolly from Galway, who persistently reminds one of a certain Molly from Eccles Street.

This novel about family loyalty, sibling rivalry and complicated love draws on themes as old as the hills and presents them all, shiny and new, glistening in the bleak fields of Roscommon.

The author has won several poetry awards and her first novel made two literary fiction shortlists. I suspect The Wild Laughter will travel even further. Dazzling doesn't even come close.

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